The Concept Of The World-Tree: Among the Ancestors of the Baltic Nations

Along with myths describing the origin of the world, its schematic symbolic representation appears. Many nations, especially Indo-Europeans, have the notion of the World-Tree. Some nations call it the Cosmic Tree or the Life-Tree. The vertical structure of the World-Tree, and thence the world model, as represented in the Lithuanian folk painting, was analysed in detail by Dundulienë [20], and Vëlius [21].

The World-Tree usually is shown as a powerful tree with wide spread branches, with its top reaching heaven and its roots going deep into the earth. The tree-top is the dwelling place of heavenly bodies and eagles, while in its branches other birds live; under the tree are men and animals and, still lower, is the dwelling place of snakes and other reptiles. From under the roots spurt springs of life and wisdom.

Thus, the World-Tree represents the world as an indivisible entity, uniting the three spheres: the heaven, the earth and the underground. The mythical imagery of the Baltic World-Tree is probably a reflection of the holly oaks and ash-trees, as it may be concluded from the falk-tales [22].

The World-Tree is a widely spread image in the Lithuanian folk painting, and some hint of it is also found in the Lithuanian and Latvian folklore. It is frequently engraved or painted o­n the objects of daily use among peasants: dowry chests, cupboards, towel holders, distaffs, laundry beaters, crochet works, etc. (Fig. 5).

Wood engravings of the World-Tree sometimes contain two segmental symbols of the Sun, surrounded by a circle of stroked squares, triangles and rhombs. The latter are symbolic imagery of tilled earth and sowed fields. The upper Sun shines in the daytime and gives warmths, while the lower o­ne was believed to cross the underground lagoon from the west to the east in a small boat, bringing dew to grass and crops [23].

The oldest grave monuments in Lithuania are wooden krikðtai, made from a board incised in the form of a tree. They used to be erected at the dead man’s feet, perhaps in a hope to make his access to the heaven easier. To the World-Tree imagery belong Lithuanian memorial crosses and wooden roofed poles (chapels), also.

Such roofed poles used to be (and still are to our day) erected at farm-steads, roadsides and cemeteries. They may have originated from the ancient ritual poles at which sacrifices were offered to gods [24]. The idea of such sacral objects is to direct the path of the prayer towards the dwellings of gods. Very common are three-storied roofed poles, where each storey represents a separate sphere of the World-Tree [25].

Every pole has the following elements: (a) a metal top with the symbols of heavenly bodies; (b) a small chapel with a wooden statuette of a god; and (c) the lower part of the pole framed by snake-shaped supports (Fig. 6). The dwellings for Samogitian (a Lithuanian ethnic group that lives in western Lithuania near the coast of the Baltic sea) gods used to be erected o­n top of a pile of stones or fixed to a separate huge round boulder. The stone was a symbolic border between the living world and the undeground world of the dead [26].

The upper part of every roofed pole is a filigree forge-work with symbols of heavenly bodies. In this symbolism we can distinguish the following ideas: the unity of the heavenly and earthly fire (the encircled cross); the ties between the Sun and vegetation (the sun rays ending in plant leaves); and the flow of time (the three phases of the Moon). Below the symbol of the Sun there is an image of the boat in which the Sun, having set in the Baltic sea in the evening, goes back from the west to the east, across the underground lagoon, in order to rise again in the morning for another day’s journey across the sky.



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